More on missionary-turned-atheist Daniel Everett

More on missionary-turned-atheist Daniel Everett November 23, 2008

EARLIER this month we ran a compelling piece about the American linguist Daniel Everett, a missionary who travelled to the Amazon to take Christianity to the remote Pirahãs tribe, but wound up an atheist.
Everett’s amazing story, told in Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, was broadcast this week by BBC Radio 4, which chose it as its Book of the Week. In the last episode, aired on Friday, Everett movingly describes how he came to lose his faith.
You can hear and download the relevant section of the broadcast here.
He concludes:

The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile.
And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahãs, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live.

Hopefully, these words will lay to rest the sour suggestion by a number of Christians that Everett was never a believer to begin with; that he was, in fact, an “atheist in Christian clothing”.
Our post attracted the highest number of “hits” of any previous report on the Freethinker website, and led to a heated debate on Reddit, where the story was taken up.
Amidst all the arguing, one Reddit contributor threw a dollop of humour into the debate by posting the following extract from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld 27 – the Last Hero.

On the veldt of Howondaland live the N’tuitif people, the only tribe in the world to have no imagination whatsoever. For example, their story about the thunder runs something like this: ‘Thunder is a loud noise in the sky, resulting from the disturbance of the air masses by the passage of lightning.’
And their legend ‘How the Giraffe Got His Long Neck’ runs: ‘In the old days the ancestors of Old Man Giraffe had slightly longer necks than other grassland creatures, and the access to the high leaves was so advantageous that it was mostly long-necked giraffes that survived, passing on the long neck in their blood just as a man might inherit his grandfather’s spear. Some say, however, that it is all a lot more complicated and this explanation only applies to the shorter neck of the okapi. And so it is’.
The N’tuitif are a peaceful people, and have been hunted almost to extinction by neighbouring tribes, who have lots of imagination, and therefore plenty of gods, superstitions and ideas about how much better life would be if they had a bigger hunting ground.
Of the events on the moon that day, the N’tuitif said: ‘The moon was brightly lit and from it rose another light which then split into three lights and faded. We do not know why this happened. It was just a thing.’
They were then wiped out by a nearby tribe who knew that the lights had been a signal from the god Ukli to expand the hunting ground a bit more. However, they were soon defeated entirely by a tribe who knew that the lights were their ancestors, who lived in the moon, and who were urging them to kill all non-believers in the goddess Glipzo. Three years later they in turn were killed by a rock falling from the sky as a result of a star exploding a billion years ago.

Let’s face it: few people can match Pratchett’s use of cynicism and humour to punch bloody great holes in religious beliefs.

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  • I absolutely agree, Terry Pratchett is one of our greatest living authors and a real champion of humanism. Read Monstrous Regiment for more about religious fundamentalism and its link to unnessacary wars. Actually, all his Discworld books have something pithy and insightful to say about religion. I became a fan whilst I was still a believer and it was his books that first led me to question my faith.

  • I’m halfway through this monograph, and I must say that it’s quite a joy to read. The Pirahãs truly are a strange but intriguing bunch to a modernised westerner like me. I haven’t yet read the chapter concerning his attempt (and failure) to christianise these happily self-sufficient souls.
    Thanks for the download link.

  • As a follow-up, I can definitely recommend Everett’s book. He doesn’t spend too much time on his (failed) attempts to convert the Pirahãs in it, but it’s fascinating stuff nonetheless.

  • I’m quite a late-comer to this whole discussion about Dan Everett’s loss of faith into atheism.
    Dan and his then wife Keren were both students when I was assistant teaching at SIL Oklahoma during the summer of, I believe, 1975. They were both brilliant, top-drawer students; in fact, I doubt I taught Dan in particular anything. In short, they both were brilliant.
    My wife and I also went on to long-term careers with Wycliffe Bible Translators, in our case, working for 23 years among the Warlpiri people of Central Australia. Warlpiri bears some linguistic features generally with the Piraha (pardon the misspelling) language the Everetts worked in (it ‘lacks’ numbers beyond three, arguably it has only two and perhaps only one pure colour terms, has limited recursion, etc).
    Like Dan, I have for long periods struggled with my faith, coupled with depression, suicidally so in 1986. The difference is that God reached down to me in His Sovereign Grace and pulled me back on January 19, 2007. I did not ask Him too, but He did. I cannot explain it, nor probably could I explain my faith to the Piraha in a form they could understand.
    I have, however, blogged my story at:
    I cannot explain why I am alive today. But my faith in Jesus Christ is, and it had and has absolutely nothing to do with me.
    Someday we will all know the truth, one way or the other. I trust we all are happy with outcome, but I don’t know how this can possibly be.

  • scootwes

    You are more generous than most evangelicals. As an ex-christian myself (Th.B., many years in para-church ministries, friends in Wycliffe/SIL, missionary in the UK – ha, you heathen freethinkers!!, etc)I would correct your last statement: “Someday we will all know the truth . . .”. If there is no afterlife – and I used to think that would be a depressing thought, but now that I admit that it could be true, it brings no fear at all – then no one will know the truth, as all consciousness ceases at death.
    In any case, even if there is a supernatural being, it is almost certainly not the Bible God, with his heavenly streets of gold and burning eternal torture for the majority of human beings who failed to believe in a correct manner.
    I know this comment is a year after the last one, but I just had to throw in my two cents worth, even if no one reads it . . .

  • Larry Addis

    Daniel Everett’s travels and book are interesting, but one doesn’t have to go to a tribe in a foreign land to learn what he did. That there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing and/or living life seems natural to some. My father was a minster and missionaries, evangelist and theologians abound on both sides of the family.
    It never made sense. Why would God require the adoration of his ant farm? Why would he/she/it hide from his creation?
    All religions are baseless in the end. Tell me one based on virgin birth, resurrection from the dead and a trinity isn’t pagan.
    Jesus philosophy and life based on something like the beatitudes is wonderful, but the Apostle Paul view was ….well…Appalling.
    It just never made sense.